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Sanctions Against Zarif: How Far Will They Go?

June 27, 2019
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. The two men met many times during nuclear negotiations
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. The two men met many times during nuclear negotiations

On Monday, June 24, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will be designated for US sanctions. If this happens, Iran will be the first country in the world to have its foreign minister come under US sanctions.

The US government says it wants to put maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic in order to “normalize” its behavior. And if the US plans to intensify this “maximum pressure” on the Iranian foreign minister, it is possible that the sanctions could be extended to denying him a visa to visit New York City — meaning he would be unable to attend meetings at the United Nations.

Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the European Union boycotted Ali Akbar Salehi, who was then the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. However, when he became Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister in 2011, he was entitled to diplomatic immunity and so the EU removed him from its sanctions list.

In general, the new US sanctions against Iran are unprecedented, so denying Zarif a visa is unimaginable. As the host country of the United Nations and as part of a binding agreement, the US has pledged to issue visas to officials of UN member countries or individuals invited by the UN to New York. At the same time, US Congress has passed a law that allows the American government to refuse to issue visas to individuals whom it deems to be harmful to the national security of the United States. For example, in autumn 1988, the administration of President Ronald Reagan refused to issue a visa to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on national security grounds.

Years later, the administration of President Barak Obama refused to issue a visa to Hamid Aboutalebi, who was to be the Iranian ambassador to the UN, even though by then relations between the US government and the Islamic Republic had improved and Secretary of State John Kerry was engaged in direct nuclear negotiations with his Iranian counterpart. It was claimed that Aboutalebi had been one of the student radicals who, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, held 52 Americans, including diplomats from the US embassy in Tehran, hostage for 444 days. He denied the charge and claimed that he had only acted as the hostages’ translator, but the US still refused to issue him a visa, forcing the Islamic Republic to appoint another person as its ambassador to the UN.

Now it is possible that the US could refuse to issue a visa to Zarif to attend UN events, including the United Nations General Assembly, which begins on September 17, 2019. Even if it does issue a visa, it might pose other restrictions on Zarif. For instance, as a rule Iranian foreign ministers travel on official Islamic Republic planes to visit New York, where the planes receive fuel and airport services, but these services might be denied even if Zarif is permitted to come to the city where the UN is headquartered. (The airplane that President Rouhani regularly uses for official visits has itself frequently featured on the US sanctions list.)

Currently the US already imposes restrictions on Iranian diplomats stationed at UN headquarters and on other Iranian leaders who receive visas to attend UN events — restrictions that are not imposed on diplomats from other countries. Iranian diplomats and officials are banned from leaving New York state and even inside the state, they are not allowed to travel to any point further than 40 kilometers away from the UN headquarters.

It is for this reason that when the Iranian president visits the country to attend UN events he arrives in and leaves New York. It is also the reason why Foreign Minister Zarif has only delivered speeches on American soil and has only given interviews to American media from New York.


Why Has Zarif Been Forewarned?

As a rule, individuals who the US puts on its sanctions list are not allowed on American soil and US authorities block any assets they have in the country, such as bank accounts and properties registered under their names. If the US Treasury does impose sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister and Zarif does have assets in the US, these assets could be identified and blocked by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Depending on how far the US government wants to go, the Iranian foreign Minister might even lose his Twitter account.

Mohammad Javad Zarif is a former US resident, dating back to his teenage years. At the time the Iranian Foreign Ministry hired him, he was still studying in the US for a second MA in international relations and a PhD in international law. So it is quite possible he does own personal assets in the US.

If Zarif does own assets in the US, then this warning that he might be placed on the sanctions list gives him a chance to remove them from danger of being confiscated or blocked. But the fact that he has been forewarned is interesting because at the same time that the US government publicly revealed that sanctions against Zarif were imminent, President Donald Trump ruled in his executive order that “there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination” to individuals or entities being placed on the sanctions list “who might have a constitutional presence in the United States.” Trump’s order further stated: “I find that because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets instantaneously, prior notice to such persons...would render those measures ineffectual.”

Nevertheless, despite the wording of Trump’s executive order, Zarif has now been forewarned and equipped with the information to take actions regarding his assets. It would appear that the US intentionally forewarned him to reduce any personal damages to him, signifying a unique diplomatic gesture.


Related Coverage:

Sanctions on Ayatollah Khamenei are Much More Than Symbolic, June 25, 2019

Guards Fear Internal Turmoil as Much as US Attack, June 21, 2019

Does Iran Really Want to Negotiate with the US?, June 21, 2019

Will Iran Violate the Nuclear Deal on June 27?, June 17, 2019

Decoding Iran’s Politics: The JCPOA Ultimatum, May 16, 2019

Iran's Partial Withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement: What are the Consequences?, May 8, 2019

How did Countries Deal with Iran During Previous Sanctions?, August 7, 2018

Decoding Iran’s Politics: The 12-Point US Ultimatum, July 6, 2018

Can Iran Legally Close the Strait of Hormuz?, July 5, 2018

Khamenei’s Eight Conditions for Talks with Europe, May 25, 2018

The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018



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